Henry Rollins gets around. He’s sung lead for rock bands, acted in movies, hosted radio shows, and written books.
And he’s traveled the world. He recites the names of the nations he’s visited in the last few years as nonchalantly as one would a grocery list. A trip to Sudan here, four books near completion, voiceover recording for National Geographic, a spoken word tour spanning North America, Europe and Australia beginning in November.
At 50, Rollins’ do-it-yourself approach has also led him to photograph the people he meets in his travels all over the world. His new book, Occupant, showcases his human portraits along with meaty essays to accompany the images . Interviewed during a recent visit to Philadelphia, Rollins says combining prose with pictures proved one of his most time-consuming undertakings yet. Here’s what else he had to say: How’d you get the idea to publish a book of photographs and writing? It’s photos of mine that I’ve taken over the last couple of years on a lot of different continents. Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Africa. These are the places most people don’t get to visit that I find interesting. And I shoot people. Landscapes don’t interest me as much of people. It’s half photographs and half writing, just so it’s not one of those things you quickly thumb through and put it back on the shelf. I think you can tell I put a lot of caloric effort into the things because I did so much writing. I didn’t want someone to think I was just gallivanting about taking a few snap shots and thinking I was going to sell it. You may not like what I do. That’s fine and that’s fair. But I don’t want anyone thinking I’m being disingenuous or flippant.
What did you find more challenging, selecting the photos to publish in your book or writing about them? The words are way harder. The photos are easy. The people you’re photographing are doing all the work. They’re the ones standing there looking great. The difficult thing is to look at a photo and really hear what it’s trying to say to you. That’s an interesting thing for me to look and write to speak to a photograph. You look at an image and it sends your mind to some strange train of thought. It’s really inspiring. I’ve never done them with my own photographs before. It was odd.
Can you tell us about some of the photographs that people will see in Occupant? The cover photo is of a North Korean soldier at the Demilitarized Zone. I took me about two years to get the visa to get into North Korea so it was a hell of a thing to get my feet on the ground in Pyongyang. It was the historic room where the soldiers sit on both sides. If you’re a North Korean soldier you could literally run into the room, run out the other side and be in South Korea. The photo I got on the cover is of the soldier when he basically ordered me out of that room. He looks at me like he was saying “get the hell out of here.” As soon as he put his arm down I snapped that photo. He was not happy with me being there and looking at him. As I walked out of the room I instantly looked down at the preview shot and I thought wow, if I could get this photo out of this country it’d be one of my better ones. I had my back to Pyongyang photographing the guy who had his back to Seoul.
What was it like being in North Korea?It’s one week of propaganda where you hear about Kim Il Sung, who is Kim Jong Il’s father, their ‘Dear Leader’, and how he invented mathematics and architecture and everyone’s really happy. What are you going to do, argue? The guy is coming at you with info he’s told to give or the information he knows. There’s no combating the guy’s point of view. You just say “yeah, OK” and you can make a note and think “this is nuts”.
Speaking of dictators, what do you think about Moammar Gadhafi being killed?I just hope that the follow-up delivers. What comes after they’ve knocked the bad guy out, and now you have to take this turbulent country and make a stable government? That’s the test. That’s the test in Iraq. That’s the test in Afghanistan. It’s like, [Libya] got what you wished for, so make it happen. It will be interesting to see what the transitional government’s role is, what the United States’ role is, what we think our role is.
You travel across continents pretty frequently. From your travels, have you seen any issues that you think Americans should know more about? Outside of America, [Americans] are under informed. And when they are informed, they’re misinformed. What they think of the Middle East is it’s a big land mass full of people who hate America, full of people who hate their freedom, which is not true. The world by in large is very friendly to me. I think America makes a lot of money with war, so it has propaganda to keep us afraid and keep us looking steely-eyed at other countries. War is an investment in the future. It’s an investment in weapons, an investment in no bid contracts, in the next Republican administration.
You photographed people from all over Asia and Africa in your upcoming book. How’d you get close to your subjects in these countries where there are language and cultural differences?
I move quietly, slowly. I try to wear a long sleeve shirt. I try to look presentable. I don’t want to look like an unshaved maniac. I’m trying to be respectful of their country and customs and people by shaving my face and dressing cleanly, so I can have the idea that I’m able to approach you. I think that translates somehow. And I try to show abundant curiosity but not pity. Some environments are very raw, and the people are very easily insulted. If you smile wrong or with the wrong body language they think you’re laughing at them, when it’s not what you’re trying to get across. That’s a body language thing I’ve seen from walking through so many slums and bazaars, they’re all different and all have people in them. They’re all hard working. They don’t want your pity. My great attempt is to give all these people dignity, just a moment to look good and get a nice photo.